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Bishops View the Economy From the Soup Kitchen

November 20, 1986|MICHAEL HARRINGTON | Michael Harrington is co-chairman of the Democratic Socialists of America

In these times of pervasive disinformation and deception, last week's pastoral letter on the economy by America's Roman Catholic bishops is shockingly simple in its truthfulness.

But haven't some of the commentators argued that the letter is actually an exercise in covert partisanship, an attack on Ronald Reagan and a show of support for the Democrats? Yes, they have, and they are wrong. The President, to be sure, will not like the document if he reads it. But, then, it is something of an embarrassment to the Democrats as well.

The bishops' statement is so much more thoughtful and penetrating than the domestic portions of the recent Democratic policy commission paper, "New Choices in a Changing America," that the Democratic National Committee should sue the church for making it look so bad.

But doesn't my comment confirm the worst fears of the bishops' Catholic critics, people like the former Nixon Cabinet member, William E. Simon, and the neo-conservative intellectual, Michael Novak? It would seem that I have just implied that the bishops are to the left of the Democrats. Doesn't that make them creeping socialists hiding behind their pectoral crosses?

As a Democratic Socialist, I can't deny that I am quite sympathetic to almost everything that the bishops say. And yet it is profoundly wrong to describe their letter as "socialist." For the astounding and simple fact of the matter is that this document is, above all, religious. It is, I know, disturbing in these days to be told that anything is what it claims to be. But that is the fact.

The press reports concentrated on the bishops' comments about poverty, the maldistribution of income and wealth, and the like. They hardly mentioned that the data and analyses were preceded by a long and impassioned statement on theology and ethics. The pastoral notes that the first words of Christ's public ministry, as quoted by St. Luke, were, "The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has appointed me to preach the good news to the poor." Shortly thereafter, the bishops continue, there is an even more pointed statement by Christ: "Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation."

It should come as no surprise that those who claim to be disciples of this Christ should write, "The fulfillment of the basic needs of the poor is of the highest priority" for the nation in a time of growing poverty.

Moreover, those words were no mere burst of indignation. The pastoral was six years in the writing, testimony was taken from experts of every political viewpoint (Novak was heard no fewer than three times), and there were three drafts, beginning in 1984 and culminating in the final text last week. Yet the finished document is, on most counts, more pointed than the earlier drafts.

Still, it can be fairly asked: Where do the gospels support the bishops' denunciation of union-busting or their insistence on full employment instead of our intolerable, and yet quite tolerated, 7% joblessness rate? The bishops emphasized the obligation to deal with international poverty even more than they did in the first draft. They have even noted that the United States regularly makes "an East-West assessment of North-South problems at the expense of basic human needs and economic development"--a sentiment that some might apply to Central America and South Africa.

Where does St. Luke touch on such matters? He doesn't, of course. But after the bishops consulted all the experts--and their scholarship is quite impressive--they looked at the facts from the perspective of an identification with the outcast and marginalized. They did so because they were, and are, religious people, because they take the gospel seriously. But to do that, for religious reasons, is radical in a society in which the top 20% is affluent (but increasingly nervous), the huge middle is sliding down a bit and about 20% of the population is either poor or in the magnetic field of poverty. The world, you see, looks quite different from the corporate office than it does from a soup kitchen. The bishops, because they are committed to the gospel of Christ, adopted the standpoint of the soup kitchen.

Many of us do not share the bishops' theological and religious motivation. But people of every faith and of no religious faith at all might learn from the straightforward and rather simple message of the Catholic pastoral.

On the other hand, I can understand why some people are upset. After all, taking Jesus Christ seriously in these matters could disturb our merry Christmas. And we can just tell the homeless that there is no room at the inn.

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